Health

In The Days Before Death

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

She’s propped in the hospital bed wondering who I am, asking again and again, “Are you my Jessi?”

“Yes, mom, I’m your Jessi.” She squeezes my hand, her face screwing up into almost tears. “It’s okay, Mom. I’m here.”

They’d taken her for an MRI in the night, the middle of the night. They’d wheeled a dying woman into a room, slid her into a tube and let the banging trauma of an MRI assault her all so they could come in three days later and tell us what we already knew. The cancer was rampant and she was dying.

And here she is now traumatized, afraid we, her five children, have all been killed in a terrible accident. And she is desperate to know that I am not dead, that I am me and the rest of us are fine, too.

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I tell her over and over. “There was no accident, Mom.”

She cries a little, and my mom was never, ever a crier. “It was so real,” she says.

“It was the MRI,” I tell her and hold her hand a little tighter. She does not have dementia but is afflicted now with the separation from reality that is a precursor of death. Before this she had been weak but aware. Now she is lost.

Eventually, she accepts that we are alive, all of us and that I am her eldest daughter. We sit together, her propped uncomfortably in the hospital bed, me by her side, holding her hand.

Death is a cruel road in those last few days. I suppose we necessarily have to fade from reality in order to let go, but to watch a vibrant, smart, well-read woman lose touch with who and where she is a heartbreaking journey.

I was once at the bedside of my grandfather as he died. He had succumbed to dementia in the months leading up to the end, so his mind was already long gone. But I remember so clearly his body’s endless attachment to breathing, deep, heavy pulls of air that went on and on for a few days. Eventually the nurses gave him morphine and his body was able to let him go. It also seemed a little cruel, or if not cruel, at least not easy. There was some relief when finally he was able to go, but still so many tears.

Back in my mother’s hospital room, the woman who was in the bed next to hers drops by for a hello. She has heard my mother’s fears and wants to help in some unknowable way. And my mom, understanding now that she is in the hospital but still not fully grasping reality, decides she must be in the maternity ward.

She asks her roommate if she has a baby.

“My children are grown,” the woman says. “Do you like babies?” she asks.

And Mom, finding herself again answers, “Not particularly.” And we all laugh.

It is true, she didn’t really like babies, but she had five and she loved us, she told us as much toward the end. I think she liked us a good bit, too.

She wasn’t an easy woman and not simple either. No fresh baked cookies after school, but we did get peanut butter sandwiches and hot cocoa when we came home from sledding. She hated making dinner but she’d work a jigsaw puzzle for hours with us and play cards, or talk politics when we got older. She was maybe a woman before her time, just biding her time. She had her struggles and her triumphs.

We eventually got her home from the hospital to her tidy, quiet apartment. She slept easier there and was able to drift off to the next plane after a few days. She waited until my sister and I were both out to finally let go. My brothers were with her.

But now, two years plus after she left us, I think about those last days, the quiet, the gentle words, and her slow, steady letting go. It broke my heart to lose her and I won’t really ever be the same, but I consider it privilege to have been by her side in the end, to help usher her to her next journey much like she had ushered me into mine.

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